Ethnobotanist Dr. Kāwika Winter tells of an ‘ōlelo no‘eau about kalo, the most important plant in Hawaiian agriculture. “It says ‘Ola ke kalo, ola ke kānaka; ola ke kānaka, ola ke kalo,’ which means if the taro lives, the Hawaiians live; if Hawaiians live, the taro lives.”
The proverb was more than metaphor, says Winter—it was reflected in reality. At the height of Hawaiian civilization more than four hundred varieties of kalo were cultivated. Then things changed.
“In the 1800s when the population collapse happened and about 90 percent of the population died because of introduced diseases, there was a concurrent loss in about 90 percent of the diversity of kalo.” The story of the relationship between kalo and Hawaiians, says Winter, is also the wider story of the relationship between humans and nature. He talks of the plant’s name and the lessons it teaches.
“The beauty of the language is the kaona, or the multilayered meanings. So if you break up the name Hāloanakalaukapalili, the most literal translates to the fluttering leaf on a trembling stem. You break up Hāloa, hā being the breath of life and loa being everlasting.” Hā is also the name for the stalk of the kalo plant, which is harvested and replanted again year after year. “So as you’re planting this over and over and over again, that hā, that stalk, is everlasting. So that’s another layer of the meaning is the everlasting stalk and you connect that to the everlasting breath of life.”